On this Day 25th September 1882

This is Tomorrow - The Penzance Scientific and Industrial Exhibition

Art is all very well in its place, but the prospect of a “scientific show” this year instead of the usual exhibition of paintings has thrilled us, ”one and all”. Our own Great Exhibition opened today at 11.00 prompt, and I was determined on being one of the first to race up the steps, and into the Public Buildings.

Everyone was there, including of course Mayor Ross, Mr Branwell and at least five Bolithos. The Borlase family was well-represented. Mr Boyns had come over from St Just, and the Reverend Lach-Szyrma and Mr Foster of Antoine Villa had crossed the bridge from Newlyn. Everyone? Well, perhaps not quite. The Bishop of Truro sent his apologies, while Mr Courtney is apparently in Russia, and there was a witty aside about how the telephone is “not yet at such a peak of perfection that it could deliver an address from St Petersburg which would be audible in that room”.

Those unfortunate gentlemen missed some fine speeches. Mr Ross hopes that we will all persuade our friends to come, and make sure that the whole thing is a success. Mr W C Borlase reminded us that not only Penzance folk but visitors on excursion trains would find that the exhibition “placed within their power to see at a glance what a life’s journey would scarcely show them - a comparison of the past with the cultured present, and enable them to look forward in some sort of way to the blessings the future might bring”.

Thomas Edison photographed by Louis Bachrach, Library of Congress (via Wikipedia)The main hall is full of machinery and models, but the real excitement is the electric lighting. The organisers have – after “untold trouble and no inconsiderable expense” – provided the public with three competing systems to peruse and compare. The Devon and Cornwall Electric Light and Power Company bring us the Brush system, “with four arc lamps of 2,000 candle-power each ”casting a blueish light”, and, on the façade of the Hall, “a lamp of equal power suspended from the parapet”. Turn to the Lecture Hall, and the eastern entrance, and you shall witness “50 incandescent lamps of the Edison Electric Light Company”, powered by a Holman’s 10-horse power vertical steam engine. Joseph Swann (via Wikipedia)

Each lamp is of I6 candle power, and this system tends rather to the yellow. And Mr Oppenheimer’s furnished rooms, all in the latest oriental style, are lit by the incandescent lamps of Edison’s bitter rival, Mr Swan; surely the foremost Penzance shop-keeper “could not have wished for a better light in which to display his goods”.

And of course there must be serpentine. Mr James Scott is showing fine mantlepieces, and Mrs Murphy, carrying on her late husband’s business, has installed a font. But serpentine is no longer reserved for the great houses and churches of the land. There are humbler items here, better fitted for the smaller home. Vases, clock-cases. And there are little curios from the past – snuff boxes and the like. A pocket sundial fashioned of brass. A dollar coin dated 1779, retrieved from the deep. There are rare metals on show; all but two of the 66 elements science has revealed to man; models of crystals. There are curiosities from the furthest corners of the world. And for the ladies, trays full of imitation gems, including the world’s “best-known and most valuable diamonds – the Queen’s Koh-i-noor and the Shah; the Empress Eugenie, the Orloff and the famous blue Hope”.

For it is certain that science is the future, and I would not hesitate to claim that the electric light, and the steam range, will do more than all the artistic daubing in the world to quicken the pulse and gladden the heart. Why, the whole exhibition is lit by the strong magic of electricity. Put before us, in our very midst, we have borne witness to the very latest “ingenuity and skill… value in adding to the length, the health and the pleasures of life”.

What changes there have been in our lifetimes! What marvels; what progress. As Mr Borlase said, as we “looked at the ….electrical machinery”, we “could not fail to look forward to the future”. And he predicted that in another hundred years – in 1982 - those who come after us will have even greater things to report. Engineers have already set to work, tunnelling their way to France beneath the English Channel. Although Mr Trimer Bennett was, as I am afraid is his habit, rather excitable. I will bow to his expertise when he claims that “we are in the infancy of science”. But his outlandish claim that “each lady and gentleman might carry their own balloons about with them, with telephonic connection”? Now that, I fear, is plainly ridiculous.


Cornishman Thursday September 28th 1882, page 5

Cornish Telegraph Thursday 28th September 1882, page 1 (advertisement); page 8 (report). The Telegraph was generally much more optimistic about electric light than the more cautious Cornishman, which favoured the gas interest

For some idea of what constituted the ‘66 elements science has revealed to man’ (64 of which were on display), see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_chemical_element_discoveries (accessed 17 8 2017).


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